Fresh Air talks with the author of a new dual biography of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to earn a medical degree, and her sister Emily, who became a doctor soon after.
On the Tuesday, Jan. 19 episode of NPR’s Fresh Air, historian and author Janice P. Nimura discusses her latest book, The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women and Women to Medicine, published by W.W. Norton in January.
Elizabeth Blackwell’s alma mater, Geneva Medical College, was a department of Geneva College, which was later renamed Hobart College and is now Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Dr. Blackwell is renowned worldwide for her achievement as the first woman doctor and for the precedent she set, both in modern medicine and opening the field of medicine to women.
On Dr. Blackwell’s 200th birthday, Wednesday, Feb. 3, HWS will host a virtual conversation with Nimura at noon.
On Fresh Air, NPR’s Peabody Award-winning weekday magazine of contemporary arts and issues, Nimura reflects on Dr. Blackwell’s life and journey to becoming a doctor, as well as her own process of getting to know the sisters through her research. She discusses the state of medical education in the 1800s and the social obstacles to women pursuing careers; Blackwell’s application to Geneva Medical College; her reception at the school and in Geneva; and her legacy as a feminist pioneer.
About Elizabeth Blackwell
In the Victoria Age, middle-class women did not receive formal educations; they could not own property or vote. Despite these obstacles, the aspiring doctor studied privately with independent physicians, an education which culminated when she graduated from Geneva Medical College on Jan. 23, 1849, at the head of her class. A contemporaneous letter, describing the exercises, says that Blackwell received her diploma from the hands of President Benjamin Hale and said, “Sir, by the help of the Most High, it shall be the effort of my life to shed honor on this diploma.”
Blackwell’s career in medicine was difficult as she fought to find employment in the male-dominated profession of medicine. Hospitals extended no opportunities for Blackwell to set up practice. At the time, it was not customary for professionals to discuss subjects pertaining to the body, illness or diseases in the company of women. Unrestrained by these obstacles, Blackwell founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children and aided in the creation of its medical college. Upon her return to her homeland England, she helped found the National Health Society, was the first woman to be placed on the British Medical Register, and taught at England’s first college of medicine for women. She pioneered in preventive medicine and in the promotion of antisepsis and hygiene and was responsible for the first chair of hygiene in any medical college.